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Auctions

Bidding for Time
Judd Tully
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

In December, an anonymous collector plunked down more than $11 million at Sotheby's New York for the Henry Graves watch by Patek Philippe & Co., regaled for more than 60 years as the world's most complicated watch, with 24 horological complications. Happily, not all collectible timepieces have to cost as much as a French Impressionist painting. Entry-level prices can start at under $1,000.  

The detail-centric world of wristwatch fanciers became clearer after a visit with Michael Friedman, the watch specialist at Christie's New York. "Complications," for starters, sounds bad to most folks, probably more accustomed to hearing the phrase during an episode of "ER." But in the watch-collecting universe, the more complications (functions of a watch), the better. Complications on vintage and contemporary wristwatches range from auxiliary dials for registering seconds, 30 minutes and 12 hours to more exotic registers for recording moon phases or a tachometer for tracking rotation speeds. "When a watch has complications," says Friedman, "it does more than just tell the time."  

Wristwatch popularity took off after the First World War, thanks in part to advertising images of dashing officers consulting their military-issue strap watches. Between 1920 and 1935, the Swiss production and exportation of wristwatches grew from 20 percent to about 65 percent of the watch market, according to Friedman.  

"I think the important approach for people to take, whether they're looking for a contemporary or vintage watch, is to explore what fits their style," says Friedman, who joined Christie's after a curatorial stint at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. "Wristwatches have been produced in unimaginable shapes, colors and materials, much like clothes or any other type of personal accessory. You want to see something that intrigues you before trying it on. There are watches that are square-shaped, rectangular or round. There are dials with Arabic numerals, Roman numerals, combinations of the two or no numerals at all. So once somebody has a concept of what they're interested in, they can start seeking out the market."  

Friedman picks up a brawny-looking Breitling chronograph, a modestly priced example (tentatively estimated at $750 to $1,000) from the 1990s that will be offered in his April 12 "Important Watches and Wristwatches" sale in New York. He studies the watch's chunky wrist strap lugs and Arabic numerals. He says it's the kind of contemporary wristwatch that has been popularized by its glamorous associations with Hollywood action films and screen hunks such as Sylvester Stallone. (But it is not the brand worn by James Bond star Pierce Brosnan in The World Is Not Enough. That's an Omega Seamaster GMT.)  

Recent wristwatches are those that have been produced within the past two years; contemporary watches can date back 20 years and vintage watches range from the 1940s to the 1970s. Friedman recommends a good cleaning and overhaul by a certified watchmaker for any watch headed for auction. For vintage timepieces, "it's important that the watch is ticking somewhat," explains Friedman, "because it indicates all the key pieces are functioning. Essentially, any watch is repairable." Friedman estimates a basic cleaning and replacement of the main springs for a watch will run $150 and as much as $1,000 for more complex repairs. Potential buyers should factor in that additional cost along with the buyer's premium, calculated at 15 percent of the first $50,000 and 10 percent thereafter, when charting out their bidding strategy.  

Prospective buyers, of course, should not only physically examine and try on the watch they're interested in during the critical pre-sale auction previews, but also request a condition report from the auction house specialist before contemplating bidding on it. The report, more technical than the descriptive auction catalogue entry, will minutely detail the condition of the watch's case, dial and movement. They're the key elements of a watch and largely determine its value. Keep in mind that each lot is sold "as is." "If you're not a seasoned collector," Friedman says, "request a condition report--it's the specialist's best and most honest attempt to describe the watch's condition."  

Next Friedman fishes out a handsome circa 1950 Patek Philippe rectangular-shaped wristwatch. With its applied diamond numerals, platinum case, heavy lugs, and crystal covering the dial, the specimen exudes a masculine elegance. Other attributes, including the triple-signed case, dial and movement, make the watch a hallmark for many collectors and increase the likelihood that it will fetch more at the April sale than the estimated $8,000 to $10,000. The same watch model, cased in more common yellow gold, would not be as sought after, according to Friedman. "Case material has a strong effect on the auction estimate of the piece," he says.  

Rarity is another hot-button factor for determining value in the collecting world, as was evident last June at Antiquorum Auctioneers in New York. A 1965 yellow-gold Patek Philippe watch sporting a perpetual calendar and moon phases--one of only three such watches made--sold for $1.1 million, considerably higher than its $600,000 to $700,000 estimate. The astute seller acquired the timepiece from a Patek Philippe retailer in 1981 for $9,000.  

Next comes a stunning and decidedly petite Cartier woman's wristwatch from the early 1930s, estimated at $3,000 to $4,000. Underscoring his observation that the more unusual the watch, the more attention it will elicit, Friedman points out the enameled American flag motif that slides up to reveal the white dial. "I expect it will generate quite a bit of interest," he says, "because it's not something people see everyday. It has an interesting aesthetic appeal."  


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